At first, I really struggled to pin down a value to write on… I’m used to thinking about the world in terms of politics, so I’m far more comfortable attributing myself an ideology than a value.
I therefore decided to completely ignore what Rachel asked me to do (sorry Rachel) and instead I chose to ask the people who know me best what they thought my defining value is. The answers I got ranged from emotional awareness to humility to generosity to kindness. All of them sort of touched on what I wanted to express here but none of them really got to the core of it.
I wanted something broader and more overarching than any of the suggestions I got; to find a name for the basis of all my other values, the reason I see politics the way I do, what I want to put out into the world and what I try to search for in it. In the end, I knew that was compassion.
I think that compassion underpins and is part of all the other things people named. For me, compassion is more than just kindness, it’s about understanding others. To be truly compassionate you need to work to empathise with other people, to understand how their life is different to yours and what that means, and act accordingly. In this way, compassion informs all of my politics. I know that as a straight white guy I’m immensely privileged and that means the world I experience is vastly different than that of many people. I can never truly know what sexism or homophobia, or racism are like (not to mention other forms of oppression) and so compassion becomes about listening to the experiences of other people, taking them on board and trying to make sure that believing and understanding those experiences informs my actions. Far too often, people write off forms of oppression: partly because facing your own complicity or relative advantage is unpleasant, and partly because true listening and understanding is difficult and can feel demanding. I think the root of both of these things could be addressed by greater compassion.
Of course, compassion isn’t just political. It’s also about the way you conduct yourself at an interpersonal level. It’s not just about understanding big societal issues but knowing how your actions affect other people. Actions we take are never in a vacuum and it’s important to be aware of what we’re doing and the way that others experience our actions (that emotional awareness thing I mentioned earlier). There are always times where something we’ve done can have consequences we didn’t intend, and for me, compassion means that when this happens you face up to the fact that you did something wrong. It means you try and empathise with why it had the effect it did and it then means altering your behaviour so that you can avoid doing it in future. I find it frustrating when people use the excuse that something wasn’t on purpose because it implies the sentiment, “you’re not allowed to be upset about this”. Compassion seeks to understand and meet the upset, rather than apportion or escape blame.
I am immensely lucky that I have somehow found myself absolutely surrounded by compassionate people. I could find countless examples of compassion from my family or my old flatmates, but I think the best examples come from the group of friends that I met in secondary school (mostly). We have always been a tight knit group and I think that compassion is woven throughout most of the things that the group does but for me the stand out example of compassion has always been the way our group deals with mental health. Pretty much all of us have at one time or another suffered from mental health issues and so we have always tried to be aware and understanding of each other’s mental health. Whether it’s a message to check in or a call on a bad night the compassion and understanding means that we are able to talk openly and honestly and support one another and has ultimately made us closer.
What I mostly want to convey in this reflection is that compassion for me is more than just kindness, though I think it is also less than indiscriminate clemency. True compassion, is difficult. It means recognising and respecting the humanity of every person. Ultimately, it is what I want to put out into the world and what I try to search for in it.